Lessons from Irrfan Khan: Wait for your turn – if you are sure it will come, chances are, it will
Irrfan Khan cried all night when he lost a significant role in Salaam Bombay, but has left behind such a formidable body of work, that the whole world joined India in mourning his death.
This article was first published on 30 April, 2020, a day after Irrfan Khan passed away.
"Be kind to each other."
Who says that while promoting a film?
The question was on my mind when Reader's Digest approached me to interview actor Irrfan Khan late last month.
Khan had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in 2018 that had kept him away from his beloved craft for over a year till he shot Angrezi Medium, the film that would turn out to be his last bow. When Angrezi Medium headed for theatres in March 2020, he was unavailable for the flurry of promotional activities including TV interviews that usually accompany Bollywood releases these days. As a stand-in for his physical presence, the producers put out an audio message from their leading man to his fans that included this sentence: "Be kind to each other."
Seriously, who says that while promoting a film?
Khan's wife, the writer Sutapa Sikdar, had initially told me he was not interacting even with the print media. He was fragile and needed to conserve his emotional strength, she explained. He did, however, ultimately give me that interview in end-March (it is published in the April edition of Reader's Digest) and when I asked why he had chosen to nudge his fans towards kindness, this is what he said: "We are not kind to people, to nature and it’s the reason why we are going the way we are. Nature is revolting. Kindness just makes life more bearable, as more happy people will make a happy world."
His reply felt poignant then, the words of a man who, while battling a crisis, was thinking deeply about the meaning of human existence. Now that he is no more, it also reads, heartbreakingly, like a farewell note.
Khan was in a ruminative mood throughout the interview, speaking frankly about his career struggles, his craft, his ultimate success, coping with cancer - in short, life. And while sadness is inescapable when reading the reflections of a man who we now know was living out the final chapter of his journey, his introspectiveness was not new.
One of my most telling memories of Irrfan Khan is not from an interview. Ten years back in 2010, standing in the lobby of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival's flashy venue, we chatted warmly in the way stars and journalists from the same country do in a foreign land where almost every familiar face is a source of comfort. I asked him about a film called Hisss, a Mallika Sherawat-starrer with a trailer so tacky that I was startled to catch a glimpse of him in a few shots. What was the star of Maqbool and Slumdog Millionaire doing in such a project?
He was silent for a second, then stared at me with a glint in those hooded eyes capable of multiple expressions within one look. "Did you have to ask me that question?" he said in a jestful tone. "Do you think you could forget that film?" Pause. Then seriously: "Watch my new film, the one that is showing here. I am telling you, this one will be important."
The film he was urging me to see at Abu Dhabi was Paan Singh Tomar. And just as he had predicted, it did turn out to be one of the most important works in his filmography. It was also, arguably, the final big turning point culminating from multiple turning points in a career that had already spanned almost a quarter century.
Irrfan Khan's childhood ambition was to be a cricketer, a choice his family did not support. It was when he watched Naseeruddin Shah in Nishant and Mithun Chakraborty in Mrigayaa that he began thinking in terms of the acting profession, he told me last month. "That's when I realised, this is engaging; that as much as I liked cricket, this can be the bhoot (spirit) I am possessed with."
He was at the National School of Drama in Delhi in the mid-1980s when director Mira Nair cast him in Salaam Bombay. "I couldn't believe it," he told me in the Reader's Digest interview. "I was 20-something then. I remember telling my then girlfriend, now wife, Sutapa, 'Let's shift to Bombay. Life has begun.'"
The excitement was short-lived. Although the sight of Mumbai's famed Queen's Necklace "shimmering from Sangam Apartment in Marine Lines where we were put up for Barry John's workshop" is indelibly etched in his memory, and he adds, "In my life as an actor, I have stayed in the most luxurious hotels across the world, but the thrill I felt at Sangam could never be matched," the image is also associated with one of his earliest career disappointments covered in detail in Aseem Chhabra’s book Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star. Khan was initially cast in the film in a large role that was offered to someone else at the last moment, while he was relegated to a tiny appearance that was not noticed back then but now of course will forever be a part of film trivia quizzes.
Looking back at that episode, Khan told me: "There are signs and lessons for you to pick up in every experience. The reality was, my time hadn't exactly arrived yet."
In the approximately two decades of struggle that followed, one important milestone was British filmmaker Asif Kapadia's The Warrior (2001-02) that won a BAFTA Award and earned Khan international attention. Back home in India, director Tigmanshu Dhulia's stunning yet under-marketed Hindi film Haasil (2003) barely drew an audience in theatres, but Khan's substantial supporting role as a student gang leader on the Allahabad University campus made him a darling of critics.
Vishal Bhardwaj's Maqbool (2003) established his ability to carry a film on his shoulders on the strength of his charisma. He starred in Maqbool opposite that Great Chameleon among Indian actors, Tabu, and matched every molecule of her brilliance with his own.
Mira Nair's English language film The Namesake (2006-07), in which he once again played the male lead opposite Tabu, gave him a permanent spot in the global pantheon of respected actor-stars. As the Kolkata-born Ashoke Ganguli, he did what few artistes manage when adopting the body language and speech of an ethnic group other than their own: he not only perfected it, playing a Bengali as convincing as any real-life Bengali might be, he also did not allow the character's Bengaliness to be his defining characteristic. What lingers long after a viewing of The Namesake is not Ashoke's accent, but an overwhelming sorrow at his struggle and failure to connect in his lifetime with his son Gogol.
Khan's capacity for a romance in the Bollywood genre was established in Anurag Basu's Life In A Metro (2007). In 2008, the multiple Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire confirmed what Indian critics had by then been saying for years: that with just a glance here and a word there, this brilliant actor could grab the spotlight even in a supporting role.
Dhulia's Paan Singh Tomar was released in Indian theatres only in 2012. In the film, Khan played an Indian Armyman who becomes a National Games medal-winning athlete but ultimately turns to dacoity due to his social circumstances. It turned out that he was absolutely right about what he had told me two years earlier in Abu Dhabi: it was important.
Paan Singh Tomar changed everything. It won him his first and only National Award, it confirmed his box-office clout and since then, practical compulsions did not once compel him to star in a murky film looking at the trailer of which a critic might ask: "What are YOU doing in THAT film?"
In the years since, there have been critical and box-office wins that have been widely chronicled along with his TV shows in the many comprehensive obituaries that have been published after the news of his passing broke yesterday. This write-up is not about that, this write-up is about the thinker behind the actor who bided his time until the world discovered and embraced him.
In 2009, I was working with Headlines Today (the former name of India Today TV) in New Delhi when I was sent to Los Angeles to track the team of Slumdog Millionaire at the Oscars. I had already met Khan in the preceding weeks when he was promoting the film in India with director Danny Boyle and actor Anil Kapoor, and observed his quiet demeanour despite his evident happiness at the film's unexpected success - in this, he was a sharp and entertaining contrast to Kapoor's gregariousness. In LA, my colleague on the camera and I met Khan the night before the awards ceremony. We recorded an interview, then stood on the balcony of his hotel room briefly chatting about his experience of being there. Minor success can change some people overnight, but here was Mister Khan, now a well-known actor in the entertainment capital of the planet, as down to earth as if he were our next-door neighbour, and as always, thoughtful.
He was not one for much public demonstrativeness, but there was an aura of almost palpable excitement about him as he spoke about his work. He told me that while this moment in time - the brouhaha and glitz accompanying the Oscar nominations - was no doubt a moment worth savouring, what truly mattered was the work he was getting to do.
Eleven years later in March 2020 when I asked him what stands out the most from his efforts to gain a foothold in films, he replied: "I did not do any networking and waited for my turn. That's my biggest takeaway. Somewhere deep down, I was very sure I would evolve because I was very critical of my work."
This for me is the stand-out lesson from the road that Khan took: wait for your turn; if you are sure it will come, chances are, it will. It finally did for that skinny youth who once told a journalist that he cried all night when he lost a significant role in Salaam Bombay, but today has left behind such a formidable body of work, that the whole world has joined India in mourning his death.
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